Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In Defense of Atheist Churches

On a recent episode of the Reasonable Doubts podcast, ex-minister Jerry Dewitt shared his intentions and ambitions for the Community Mission Chapel, a secular church where he preaches a message of humanism. You won't find god there, but you will find lessons and teachings on love, hope, purpose, truth, and other familiar concepts. Dewitt's ideas seem to be part of a growing push among secularists aspiring to develop a greater sense of community. Earlier this year, the Sunday Assembly in London attracted large numbers of attendants curious to see what a so-called atheist church looks like. Atheist speakers like Alain de Botton have encouraged non-believers to embrace and learn from certain aspects of religion, particularly the social components found in ecclesiastical environments.

Predictably, the response to these new initiatives has been mixed on both sides. Christian apologist William Lane Craig has criticized the efforts of Dewitt and others, suggesting that their messages have no real substance without a transcendent deity behind them. The atheist blogosphere has no shortage of voices decrying any attempts at organizing that could be construed into an argument for atheism being a religion. But at the other end of things, there are also those who see the value in having a network of support like most congregations provide. Even simply having a weekly place of respite from our predominantly religious world, where one can gather with like-minded people, can be its own reward.

I used to count myself among those who contend that anything resembling religion should be anathema to atheism. No sacred texts, no liturgies, no icons, no prophets, no evangelists, and definitely no churches. All such things are permeated by corruption and serve to foster blind obeisance. Undoubtedly, they can and do often suffer from those problems, and history is rife with prime and perturbing examples. Yet we have to be cautious that we don't toss the baby out with the bathwater. Nietzsche saw the world as infused with innumerable crumbling theistic assumptions, but even he didn't conclude that there would be nothing worth salvaging from the ashes of religion. Whether or not there are any gods, angels, demons, or spirits, religion is a human enterprise. Perhaps, like us, it has its good as well as its bad traits.

I'm regularly disappointed by how few atheists seriously consider what evolution and social psychology tell us about religious belief. It's not something that can be knocked down in one shot with a silver bullet argument. It's not going to fade away and be replaced by widespread reliance on reason and evidence. Religion hasn't only survived through bloodshed and oppression, even if they've played a significant role in its history (like they have for much of human history in general). Religion persists for other reasons. They're not the cosmic sort of reasons, nor are they necessarily the memetic sort. Put simply, there are things about religion which are apparently appealing enough that we have sustained it since before recorded history.

However, I would disagree with some theists like Dinesh D'Souza, who assert that the survival of religion says something about the goodness or truth of its claims. I'm most sympathetic to the view of Pascal Boyer espoused in his seminal work Religion Explained. What exactly religion fulfills in us is a matter of no small debate, but there is some basis for thinking that it appeals to needs and desires that go deeper than the belief in a transcendent or personal creator of the universe. I believe this is well indicated by the grand variety of opinions on what god is, how many gods exist, what their roles and attributes are, etc. This part of religion seems quite amorphous in contrast to more inflexible parts of it, such as morality and community. As far back as our records go, we find community participation and moral codes to be fairly consistent aspects of religion. Even today in individualistic societies like the US and Great Britain, where religion is believed to be a more private matter, there are many strong communities of faith.

I can see atheist churches meeting the needs of religion without the god stuff, because I believe that's practically what religion itself already does for many. What should be so different about an atheist church and a college lecture hall? What about a local community center? A school of philosophy? Likely due to cultural influence, we seem to attach a different mood to the label of "church". A college lecture hall is for college students, and sometimes consists of dry and boring content, as can a school of philosophy. Local community centers are usually event-driven, but also have the connotation of being made up of 'good citizens'. Churches, on the other hand, are intended to be welcoming and inviting, whatever your background. Much more than a lecture hall, community center, or school of philosophy, they appeal to our needs and desires as social creatures.

To be frank, I worry that we risk sacrificing too much if we concern ourselves more with how our views and actions appear to other people than with the values we claim to have. Atheism should not mean every man for himself, or every woman for herself. We shouldn't create an atmosphere of isolation solely in the service of making it easier for us to fend off theistic criticisms. Dogmatic believers will mislabel atheism a religion as long as it suits their agenda; it's truly not contingent on anything we do. There is more that can be had from atheist churches than from conventions, meet-up groups, and whatnot. Of course, no atheist is obligated to attend an atheist church, but for those who want the fellowship - which I remind you is not a concept on which the religious have any exclusive claim - it won't hurt anything if those opportunities are available.

Dewitt and Jeremy Beahan make many great points, one of which is that we don't just benefit from moral instruction, but from moral conversation as well. Activating concepts in our minds is part of what helps to make us better people, and imagine what will be contributed to critical thinking in an environment where questions are actually expected and cultivated instead of discouraged! Perhaps there could even be lessons learned from William Lane Craig's bizarre and careless dismissal of subjective meaning and purpose, as if some absolute cosmic brand is the only kind that should matter to us.

I have to admit, I would probably not regularly attend an atheist church myself. My reason, though, would be mostly due to my past as a religious believer, and not any personal aversion to it. I'm quite content having my weekends free and not hearing cheesy godless hymns or corny parodies of invocations. But I also recognize that many who feel lost after walking away from their faith, who have never had a church experience, or those who just like being around fellow non-believers, may find enjoyment in it. In addition, I happen to know many religious people who have never cracked an atheist book, or sought out an atheist to ask an honest question. If they were suddenly invited to an atheist church by a friend, maybe they would go and possibly hear some answers to the questions they've been afraid to ask.

So yes, atheist churches could split, they could have to ask their congregations to help with funding, they might have to face corruption and any other problems many churches face, and they likely wouldn't help to make us look less religious to the diehard anti-atheists out there... but do those costs really outweigh the benefits? If organizing is what it takes to get our voices heard politically, to dialogue with other communities in a more meaningful and productive way, to bring us together to affect greater change in social justice issues and other causes, and to better fulfill some of our personal and social needs and desires, then I can't be opposed to the idea of an atheist church.